The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

A Restaurant Owner’s Open Letter to Charlottesville

COVID-19 has taken a toll on restaurants, destroying some, while leaving others dangling by a thread. Still licking their wounds, restaurants and their staff are now doing more than ever with fewer resources than ever, just to survive. They do it because they love to serve us.

Let’s love them back. An owner’s open letter to Charlottesville:

An Open Letter to Charlottesville’s Dining Community

In March of 2020, the restaurant industry we have known for much of our professional lives changed.  COVID-19 delivered a blow that no one could have expected. Our lives were changed forever. Many restaurants shuttered their doors, some to never open again. Those who managed to remain open fought other battles – policy restrictions from state and local governments; guest apprehension; health advisories. We fought to hold together some semblance of our businesses we proudly created with our limited funds, blood, sweat and tears. The public was sympathetic and supportive. You ordered take-out, knowing many of us never had a take-out menu previously. You bought gift certificates, never sure if they would actually be redeemable on the other side of this. You helped many of us survive.

A number of times now we have thought COVID was in our rear view mirror only to be brought to the forefront by rising case numbers, an employee who tests positive, or a new restriction re-levied on us. Each time has felt to be another kick to the ground, wondering if we should try to stand again. For myself and many other restaurant owners, these small businesses represent our legacy. They are the means to feed our families, educate our children. In short, our means to build our lives.  For me, it represents a lifelong dream to own my own business and be my own boss.

Personally speaking, the anxiety and stress of the unknown led to severe depression. Sleepless night after sleepless night wondering if the next unexpected twist will be the final nail in the coffin. Therapy and medication became the norm to find my baseline and the ability to get through each day. My fuse shortened and it became harder to find joy in the profession I once loved. I know I am not alone in this feeling. I know many of my peers who have experienced the same.

Guests are now returning – and we are happy for it – but not all of us have been ready. Staffing shortages have left us exhausted. Much of our previous staff moved on. Some remain on unemployment, concerned for their health and safety. Others found a new line of work. Hiring and retraining new staff has been difficult, as many have left the industry in this time. Re-acclimating to “business as usual” in a time that is still unusual has not been easy. Already emotionally and physically exhausted, the toll of guest expectations is now further weakening us. Complaints of slow or imperfect service have rolled in, and the gentle hand that guests seem to take a year ago is now being replaced by rudeness and impossible expectations by some.

I am saying all this in a plea to the dining community. Please understand what we have been through, and what we are trying to return to.

We know your martini took 15 minutes to get to you. The bartender is taking tables because the server no-showed tonight.

Your steak was medium instead of medium rare because we are training the dishwasher to work the grill.

Your server wasn’t as friendly because she is working an extra shift to cover her co-worker who is awaiting COVID results.

We love our city and we love our diners.  We want to be here when this is all said and done. Take a moment to thank a restaurant employee for showing up to work.  Tip them an extra few bucks.  Bring your favorite restaurant employee a gift for Christmas. At the very least, be a bit patient with us as we look after you.

We are just as excited to have you back in our dining rooms as you are to be there.

– Restaurant Owner in Charlottesville

“Better Together”: Charlottesville’s Champion Brewing Company and Reason Beer to Merge

One makes Five Pillars Ale. The other makes Collaboration 29. Now, two of Charlottesville’s most acclaimed breweries, each loyal supporters of the community, are merging. Champion Brewing Company and Reason Beer.

While both parties expect the merger to bring behind-the-scenes efficiencies, little will change for fans of their beer, they say. Reason’s Jeff Raileanu becomes Champion’s CFO. Champion’s operations will move from Woolen Mills to Reason’s headquarters on Seminole Trail. And, the breweries will enjoy improved buying, production, and marketing power. All the while, each brewery will keep making its same flagship beers, with the same brewers, recipes, and staff as before. Tap room locations also remain unchanged.

Among the ties that bind the two breweries is a love of Charlottesville. Champion’s founder and two Reason co-founders were all born at the old Martha Jefferson hospital in downtown Charlottesville. With Charlottesville in their blood, they are active in local philanthropy and share a drive to preserve locally-owned breweries. “With long-time Charlottesville connections and a real love for this community, the culture fit between Reason and Champion made sense,” said Raileanu. “It’s an exciting opportunity for two like-minded local companies to combine to be better together.”

The best news for local beer fans may be stability, particularly in an industry where over-saturation, consolidation, and COVID-19 have all threatened local breweries’ existence. With Champion launched in 2012 and Reason in 2017, the breweries’ founders hope that joining forces will mean they are here to stay. “It’s a path for long term stability for both local brands,” Champion founder Hunter Smith said. Raileanu agrees. “We’re nearing our five-year anniversary and it’s almost ten years for Champion,” he said. “By combining and streamlining our operations, we’re setting up to make the next five years even better.”

The deal will close in late November.

 

Ain’t That America: Exploring America’s Restaurants on Soccer Road Trips

I was once asked what’s missing from the Charlottesville food scene. My response:

With more than 200 countries in the world, each with their own diverse cuisines, Charlottesville could never begin to scratch the surface of them all.  Sure, I miss some foods I enjoyed when living in larger cities, but we do awfully well for our size.

As for some of those missing foods, a silver lining of the travel that youth soccer programs can require is the opportunity to explore elsewhere. In anticipation of a weekend away for soccer, extensive food research is invariably focused on experiences unavailable in Charlottesville.

On a recent trip up the East Coast, a stop at Baltimore’s Greektown was non-negotiable. Greek food is not prolific in Charlottesville, and Greektown’s blue-collar neighborhood of brick-lined streets where Greek immigrants began settling decades ago is bursting with  restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries. Greeks-in-the-know directed us to Karellas, a storefront café run by the Karela family. Originally opened as a place where Greek-Americans with common interests could meet for coffee or watch soccer, the restaurant refocused on food in recent years led by chef-owner Emmanuel Karelas and his son Nikolakis. “The food, recipes, preparation, cooking, and service are all from the Karellas Family,” says Nikolakis.

While a police officer and regulars with thick Baltimore accents shared stories about their week over bottles of coke, we took in the scene at a nearby table and feasted on pork gyros, grilled octopus, and, a house specialty tyrokeftedes – oozing fried balls of cheese, with a wedge of lemon for brightness and acid.

Breakfast the next morning took us to Wilmington, DE, where we enjoyed an experience difficult to find outside a city: a grand hotel. Le Cavalier is a stunning brasserie beside the lobby of Hotel Du Pont. As a start to the day, there are few things more energizing than the buzz, grandeur, and polish of a restaurant like this.

Vietnam is another country whose cuisine is underrepresented in Charlottesville. In Lancaster, PA, we found Sprout, a restaurant with an American story of opportunity and resilience. It began in 1975, when the Cao family fled Saigon for the United States for a better life and new beginning. They landed in New Orleans, where, in 1982 they opened the city’s first Vietnamese restaurant. Over time, they opened two more restaurants, and, by 2004, ran three of the most popular Vietnamese restaurants in the New Orleans area. Then, tragedy struck in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed all of their restaurants. The family sought refuge with an aunt who lived in Lancaster, PA. There, they started over, and opened a restaurant in 2006. Ten years later, they opened a second restaurant, Sprout, where we dined, in historic downtown Lancaster City. It was outstanding, with family recipes enhanced by Bodo’s-like cheerfulness and efficiency from decades in the industry together.

Once a stage coach tavern stopover between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, the building for the Brickerville House Restaurant was built in 1753. In 2008, it was purchased by brothers Tony and George Agadis, industry veterans who left New York City for a calmer pace of life, which they found in central Pennsylvania. With an economics degree from NYU, George runs the front of the house, while, in the kitchen, chef Tony brings the attention to detail of a Culinary Institute of America graduate to the fare of a countryside family diner. It’s a winning combination, with lines already forming by 8 am outside the 225-seat restaurant. Details like coffee in a French Press from a wall full of various house-selected beans and blends, and pancakes some call the best ever.

An endearing aspect of ethnic restaurants in America is that they can pop up anywhere. Wherever an immigrant with a dream may choose to settle, you might enjoy the culture of another country. In Lititz, PA, a town established by Moravians in the 1740s, sits The Bulls Head Public House. Once named Coolest Small Town in America, and home to one of the oldest Independence Day celebrations in the country, Lititz is quintessential Main Street USA, an ideal setting for a charming British pub. There’s hand-drawn ale on tap, a beer list recognized as one of the nation’s best, and a well-executed menu of traditional pub favorites, like sausage rolls.

Neshaminy Creek County Line IPA, on cask.

 

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